14 Viral Quotes That Thomas Jefferson Never Said

14 Viral Quotes That Thomas Jefferson Never Said
Gif: Natalie Peeples / Gizmodo

It is a comforting thought that the insights of the past can ferry us through the trials of the present. We look to famous, beloved leaders for advice, whether it’s Albert Einstein, Mahatma Gandhi, or Walt Disney. We search for them on Google. What we find, however, is not a pile of pearls of wisdom but a heap of trash. Fakes abound, preying on our willingness to believe. And online hucksters in search of easy clicks and likes love nothing more than a past president, especially a Founding Father. Few people have more fake quotes attributed to them on the internet than Thomas Jefferson. And today, we’re taking a look at some of the most popular ones.

No, Jefferson never said “facts are stubborn things.” No, he never said, “when tyranny becomes law, rebellion becomes duty.” And the third President of the United States of America definitely didn’t say, “a democracy is nothing more than mob rule.”

We’ve got 14 quotes that you may have seen floating around on the internet recently, all credited to one of the Constitution’s principal authors. Some have even been regurgitated by Republican politicians like Reps. Madison Cawthorn of North Carolina and Jim Jordan of Ohio. But they’re all fake.

Fake Jefferson on Banks

Thomas Jefferson painted by Gilbert Stuart, oil on panel, National Portrait Gallery, Washington, D.C.  (Image: Corbis, Getty Images)Thomas Jefferson painted by Gilbert Stuart, oil on panel, National Portrait Gallery, Washington, D.C. (Image: Corbis, Getty Images)

“If the American people ever allow private banks to control the issue of their currency, first by inflation, then by deflation, the banks and corporations that will grow up around [these banks] will deprive the people of all property until their children wake up homeless on the continent their fathers conquered.”

This quote has recently been going viral in the crypto community and has been popular at places like Forbes over the years. But it’s not a real Jefferson quote.

The source of the quote is often cited to a 1802 letter from Jefferson to Secretary of the Treasury Albert Gallatin, but Jefferson never wrote such a letter, according to the Thomas Jefferson Encyclopaedia. Part of the quote seems to date back to a newspaper article in 1933, and it wasn’t credited to Jefferson.

Fake Jefferson on Facts

“It was Thomas Jefferson that said facts are stubborn things,” Republican congressman Madison Cawthorn said during a speech in the U.S. House last summer.

Cawthorn, a far-right bigot and all-around terrible person, was maybe confusing Jefferson with John Adams, who did apparently use the phrase “facts are stubborn things,” in 1770, according to Quote Investigator. But Adams was far from the first person to say it.

The phrase dates back to at least 1731, as Quote Investigator points out, when Bernard Mandeville published the book, An Enquiry into the Origin of Honour, and the Usefulness of Christianity in War.

Fake Jefferson on Remaining Silent

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The Canadian trucker’s convoy, which was protesting covid-19 vaccines in the most obnoxious way possible this past winter, released a “Memorandum of Understanding” that opens with a Jefferson quote.

“All that tyranny needs to gain a foothold is for people of good conscience to remain silent,” the imagined Jefferson said.

The problem, of course, is that Jefferson never said it. As pointed out by the fact checkers at Monticello, Jefferson’s home that is now a museum about his life and work, the quote is more often attributed to Edmund Burke, but there’s no solid evidence that he said it either. It’s admittedly a good quote, but it’s not a Jefferson quote.

Fake Jefferson on Big Government

Thomas Jefferson drafting Declaration of Independence; painting by N.C. Wyeth. (Image: Bettmann, Getty Images)Thomas Jefferson drafting Declaration of Independence; painting by N.C. Wyeth. (Image: Bettmann, Getty Images)

“A government big enough to give you everything you want, is a government big enough to take away everything that you have,” Jefferson said — supposedly, but not really.

The far-right college advocacy group Turning Point USA recently tweeted a photo that shows the weirdos over there are putting the quote on flyers. But it’s not like we’d expect better from a college group that wears diapers to own the libs.

Fake Jefferson on Liars

Screenshot: TwitterScreenshot: Twitter

Have you seen that Jefferson quote about liars in government? Turns out, the only people lying are those spreading the quote on the internet.

“The government will one day be corrupt and filled with liars, and the people will flock to the one that tells the truth,” Ryan Fournier, the chairman of Students for Trump, tweeted back in 2017.

Trump supporters became fond of this quote, supposedly showing Jefferson had some kind of psychic prediction that a figure like Trump would emerge. As Politifact points out, there’s absolutely no evidence the quote was ever uttered by Jefferson, but that hasn’t stopped it from spreading like wildfire on Facebook. It’s not clear who originally said it, or if anyone of consequence ever did.

Fake Jefferson on the Free Press

Mount Rushmore, South Dakota: The head of Washington and Jefferson from  the top of Lincoln's head. Undated photograph circa 1940s. (Photo: Bettmann, Getty Images)Mount Rushmore, South Dakota: The head of Washington and Jefferson from the top of Lincoln’s head. Undated photograph circa 1940s. (Photo: Bettmann, Getty Images)

“When the speech condemns a free press, you are hearing the words of a tyrant,” CNN Espanol columnist Geovanny Vicente-Romero tweeted about Donald Trump.

And, yes, the quote sounds like a truism. But Jefferson never said it. Snopes notes that the quote first appeared online in February 2017, making this a very fresh invention.

Fake Jefferson on Tyranny

“Jefferson said once tyranny is when the people fear the government. Sadly, we’re there,” Republican Rep. Jim Jordan of said on October 21, 2021 during a hearing with Attorney General Merrick Garland.

The full quote is more often read as “When government fears the people, there is liberty. When the people fear the government, there is tyranny,” but even that isn’t something Jefferson said, according the fact checkers at Monticello. In fact, the earliest known place this quote has been found is 1914, quite a while after Jefferson died in 1826.

What kind of tyranny was Jordan talking about during this hearing? Moderate level public health measures to keep people alive during a pandemic. Curiously, the Ohio Republican also referred to the “Great Awakening,” a phrase used by QAnon conspiracy theorists.

Fake Jefferson on the Second Amendment

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“The beauty of the Second Amendment is that it will not be needed until they try to take it away,” a quote attributed to Thomas Jefferson often reads.

The quote pops up on social media sites like Pinterest constantly, which seems like a strange place for people to talk about trying to overthrow the U.S. government with their personal firearms. But it makes sense that this quote would be popular online; it seems to have originated in the internet era.

The oldest known use of this quote is in the 2007 short book On A Hill They Call Capital: A Revolution Is Coming by Matt Carson. The book is a novel, so perhaps it can be forgiven for manufacturing a fake Jefferson quote, but the quote doesn’t even make sense on its face. No wonder the book has some pretty terrible reviews on Amazon.

Fake Jefferson on Democracy

Aquatint portrait by Michal Sokolnicki after painting ca. 1799 by Tadeusz Kosciuszko. (Image: Corbis, Getty Images)Aquatint portrait by Michal Sokolnicki after painting ca. 1799 by Tadeusz Kosciuszko. (Image: Corbis, Getty Images)

“A democracy is nothing more than mob rule, where 51 per cent of the people may take away the rights of the other 49,” Thomas Jefferson supposedly said, in what’s arguably the most fascist quote on our list. Thankfully, he never did say it.

The quote, recently tweeted by conservative internet radio host Ben Bradshaw, seems to date back to 2004, according to the Thomas Jefferson Encyclopaedia.

It’s fascist nonsense to call democracy mob rule, but mobs have, it might be said, become a tactic permitted, and even approved of, by the Republican Party.

Fake Jefferson on the Constitution

Screenshot: FacebookScreenshot: Facebook

“The greatest danger to American freedom is a government that ignores the constitution,” the Conservative Coalition of North Carolina said, in a quote posted to Facebook and attributed to the third president.

As USA Today points out, the earliest known use of this quote in print is from a 2015 book called The Phantom of the Hungry Hollow by D.H. Reid and Ginger Reid-Parker, but online instances of it go as far back as 2004.

Fake Jefferson on Rebellion

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Dr. Kelli Ward, the head of the Republican Party in Arizona, tweeted an image with the quote, “When tyranny becomes law, rebellion becomes duty.” But Jefferson never made that quip.

Fact checkers have found the quote attributed to Jefferson throughout the 20th century, sometimes using “injustice” in place of the word “tyranny.” But it doesn’t seem to appear anywhere earlier than that. Given that Jefferson died in the 19th century, it’s extremely unlikely he said this unless he invented time travel. And if that’s the case we’ve got an entirely new problem to confront that makes fake quotes on the internet a very minor issue.

Fake Jefferson on Work

Oil painting of Thomas Jefferson by Gilbert Stuart (1755-1828) (Image: Corbis, Getty Images)Oil painting of Thomas Jefferson by Gilbert Stuart (1755-1828) (Image: Corbis, Getty Images)

“The Democracy will cease to exist when you take away from those that are willing to work, and give to those who would not,” the Facebook group Save Southern Heritage and History posted. But, as you can guess by now, Jefferson never uttered this phrase.

As USA Today points out, Jefferson did say write something similar in spirit, if only because he was translating an economic text from French to English:

To take from one, because it is thought that his own industry and that of his fathers has acquired too much, in order to spare to others, who, or whose fathers have not exercised equal industry and skill, is to violate arbitrarily the first principle of association — the guarantee to every one of a free exercise of his industry, & the fruits acquired by it.

It certainly sounds different when you learn the real quote. And even then, you can’t say that it’s Jefferson’s idea. He simply translated it 1816 from Antoine Destutt de Tracy’s Treatise on Political Economy.

Fake Jefferson on Style vs Principle

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“In matters of style, swim with the current; in matters of principle, stand like a rock,” Jefferson supposedly said.

Eric Brakey, the spokesperson for the group Young Americans For Liberty and a former state senator in Maine, tweeted this fake Jefferson quote on the anniversary of the January 6 insurrection. But Jefferson never said it.

This quote dates back to the late 19th century but was often referred to as an

“old adage,” according to the Jefferson fact-checkers at Monticello. Sometime around 1973, people started attributing the quote to Jefferson, and the rest is recent history.

Fake Jefferson on Courage

Rudulph Evans's statue of Thomas Jefferson with excerpts of the  Declaration of Independence seen behind, Thomas Jefferson Memorial,  Washington, D.C., USA, March 1985.  (Photo: Barbara Alper, Getty Images)Rudulph Evans’s statue of Thomas Jefferson with excerpts of the Declaration of Independence seen behind, Thomas Jefferson Memorial, Washington, D.C., USA, March 1985. (Photo: Barbara Alper, Getty Images)

“One man with courage is a majority,” is a pithy quote often attributed to Thomas Jefferson. But he never wrote those words, according to the Thomas Jefferson Encyclopaedia.

This quote is most often attributed to Andrew Jackson, but that’s also incorrect. The 7th president didn’t say it either, according to an expert on Jackson writing in 2007 for the Los Angeles Times.